New federal management plan focuses on forest health |

New federal management plan focuses on forest health

Bruce Finley
The Denver Post

Obama administration officials this morning unveiled a sweeping new framework for managing national forests, saying “multiple uses” can continue, but that the priority must be improving forest health and resilience.

In Colorado, for example, they want to see fewer forests dominated by same-species, same-age trees. These are more vulnerable to the beetles that in recent years have ravaged more than 4 million acres in the Rocky Mountain region. The officials say they are now aiming for greater diversity.

The nationwide “planning rules” that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced replace rules developed 30 years ago that became cumbersome as forest managers tried to balance extractive industry interests with recreation and protection of water resources.

“This is a recognition that all of these uses are important,” Vilsack said in a conference call with reporters. Forest managers now must figure out “how they can work together, not only to improve the resilience and health of the forests but the economies of the communities that surround the forests,” he said.

Conservationists were scrutinizing a 97-page document this morning.

Forest Service overseers seem to be “heading in the right direction,” said Mike Francis, director of forest programs for the Wilderness Society, a national advocacy group. “We are encouraged.”

Some are concerned that the national rules leave too much discretion in the hands of regional bureaucrats. The Wilderness Society will be working “to set some definitive standards that would lock in the direction they are going,” Francis said.

The new planning rules provide a framework for all activities on 193 million across across 44 states, divided into 155 forest and grassland units.

U.S. Forest Service land serves as the source of drinking water for 124 million Americans, including residents of Denver and other cities. Forests also are crucial for wildlife.

But pressures from climate change and energy development have presented challenges.

“Our natural ecosystems are only going to provide for us to the extent that they are healthy. National forest management, more than anything else, determines whether our forests are healthy,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group that successfully sued the Bush administration for failing to protect forests as required.

Courts ruled against the Bush administration’s approach. Obama administration officials decided not to appeal those rulings, which pleased environmental groups. Over the past two years, Obama officials have been developing their own rules.

In Colorado, the forest service owns 11.3 million acres, about 47 percent of the federally-managed land that covers much of the western half of the state.

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